Our “So You Want To Be” series interviews men and women in engineering or jobs that require an engineering background to ask about their career, how they got into their line of work, and what their job entails.
Today’s interview is with Mark Drlik, a Mechanical Engineer and project manager at Starfish Medical based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. His ten years of total industry experience include the fields of medical device development, solar lighting, pressure swing adsorption, and cryogenics testing.
Tell Us a little about your background.
I’m a graduate (bachelor’s) in mechanical engineering from the University of British Columbia. I’ve been an engineer for a little over 10 years in a variety of jobs- but mostly in high tech. Started in Vancouver with cryogenics for about a year, then did work on gas operation technologies for about five years and then worked in solar powered LED lighting systems for a couple of years.
Finally, I made the transition into medical devices.
I was really looking for something that answered a deeper calling… where the motivation was not necessarily about money but also about helping people. Coming over to Starfish Medical really allowed me to leverage my experience (in engineering) in a beneficial way and aligned with the core values I have for myself.
Describe your work as a Mechanical Engineer at Starfish Medical.
I am a mechanical engineer and project manager. So, most of the time the person that is managing the project and interfacing with the client is also contributing at some level on the technical basis… so I am both trying to find solutions and managing client interactions.
I hadn’t worked in a consulting environment prior to working here and it is very dynamic environment compared to being a product-based engineer.
The big difference is here (in an engineering consultancy) – we are never experts in any one thing. Our skills are in exploring and finding the right solution to any given problem as opposed to knowing everything about one field in particular. Product based engineers or engineers who are specializing in just one product line for a given company can know everything about one field in particular and be in any number of specialities within that field. We focus on solutions for clients… so we have to be generalists.
Can you describe what medical device engineering Starfish performs?
Starfish medical is a medical device design consultancy. So, clients that have an interesting problem that requires a (custom engineered) solution come to us and our goal is to provide them with a well-engineered solution. We work on a variety of different devices here… everything from dental syringes up to carts for fluoroscopy to things you ingest to devices that help people through cystic fibrosis.
We look at things like ergonomics, workflow, core technologies, and develop improvements to them. This entails going to hospitals where devices are actually being used and interviewing the people that use them… doctors, nurses, etc. Often, you’ll find who the client thinks is going to use their product and who actually uses the product, and how it is even being used, are different.
The engineering services provided to clients here are from preliminary ideation (what we refer to as “phase zero”) through continued manufacturing… and anywhere in between.
A few samples of Starfish Medical’s work:
This spine treatment device was developed for KKT Orthopedic Spine Center
HiCycle Durability Tester for heart valves and other cardiovascular devices was developed for ViVitro Labs
ViVitro SuperPump: main component of pulse duplicators that test heart valves and other cardiovascular devices was developed for ViVitro Labs
The ThromboLUX is a blood platelet analyzer developed for LightIntegra
How does an engineering student get hired in the medical device industry?
The best example I can give you is of someone who is a recent graduate that recently came aboard here: The right thing to do to be hired on is to be involved in projects (extra curricular or not) that involve medical devices. This individual developed a stethoscope as part of his work… and got quite a bit of publicity around it.
Having that breadth of experience and desire to be in the medical field is even more important than grades.
In addition, it’s important that (once you know where you want to work, or what you want to do) you ask and try to find paths in different ways… make sure you are putting your name out there. In this example, our (recent graduate) new hire made his “in” by connecting at a dinner party.
And, of course, applying would be an appropriate thing to do as well.
Even if you are applying for co-ops (or internships) apply directly but take the initiative to go out and try for that job you really want. And networking is obviously a great way to get your foot in the door anywhere.
What, in your opinion, separates a great employee from a merely average one?
The biggest thing that separates great employees here is being a self-starter… people that take initiative. In a consultancy environment, in particular, that is a very important skill.
What is the best part about being an project manager at an engineering consultancy? The worst?
The best part of the job? When you find a solution that works for everybody and it helps a customer. By far.
And for the worst… obviously when that doesn’t happen. When a technical challenge is so great and it is not available within the constraints that have been given.
If you can do one thing differently with your career, what would you have done?
Gosh I don’t know… because where I ended up was all a part of that journey. It probably would have been to move to medical devices earlier. This space has been quite rewarding for me and that would be the one takeaway.
And that’s a very personal thing as well. Some people find a lot of enjoyment in other work environments.
How would you describe your work life balance?
So it swings, depending on projects. I had a child recently so that has been a bit of refocus for me. Finding balance really requires better time management on my part and I’ve done a better job with that. When things are slower things swing back the other way (toward family, leaving right on time) but when there is a big project things definitely swing back in favor of the work.
That’s just a virtue of being in a consulting environment given the ebb and flow of jobs that come in.
Being in an engineering consultancy is more polarizing time-wise than a product development company. While there are projects and deadlines that are set (in a product development company) most of them are internal and if there are reasonable reasons to delay things that’s okay. But here, as a consultant, when there is a deadline that deadline is it – there’s no good way to shift that out. You have to make it.
What is your career trajectory like?
Learning is a key desire for most engineers and opportunities abound within the consulting environment. Where I am right now (as a project manager) is something I want to stick with for a period of time anyway .
That being said, for a younger graduate, there would be plenty of opportunities to grow and expand starting at a junior level… and understanding what is involved all the way up to a project manager position.
There are a variety of things to do within Starfish as well. You can be a technical leader. A group manager. At Starfish it’s a very flat structure… and it’s a place that you get as much as you put into it back.
What actionable takeaways or advice would you give young engineers?
I think the one thing I’d say – general advice – is to make goals for yourself and understand where you want to go with your career. If you track to that you end up having a lot more success both personally and professionally.
And by goals, I should clarify, I mean sort of the five year goals as opposed to the one week goals. Doing both is very important skill to have, or task to do … creating (and executing on) both one week and five year goals.
(Tip: Use our advanced search with keywords “consultancy,” “project manager” or “medical device” in the “All of These Words” field.)
Education Required: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical or biomedical engineering, certifications (preferred).
Salary Range: C$69,000 – C$120,000 for “Mechanical Engineers” working in medical devices (in Canada), with C$92,000 being the mean. (According to Payscale.com)
Work Schedule: Project-based. Regular hours with expectation of working overtime when a project demands it.
Industry: Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering
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